Music is the best medicine

Queensland Conservatorium Research Centre Professor Don Stewartbelieves that music can be the best medicine.

Professor Stewart’s latest project uses an innovative mix of music and traditional shadow puppetry to help combat parasitic infections and break the poverty cycle in rural Indonesia.

The project is one of17 new grants funded by the Australia-Indonesia Institute, which promotes Australia’s relationship with Indonesia through art, culture and education.

Professor Stewart has worked in Indonesia for a number of years, helping build sanitation facilities in rural parts of the country as part of a project with Griffith’s School of Public Health.

“We installed cheap homemade latrines to help prevent parasitic infections, but I realised we needed some way of getting messages about good hygiene practices across to the local villagers.

“We decided we needed to approach the issue from a different angle.”

Professor Stewart worked with researchers and musicians from the Queensland Conservatorium and an Indonesian puppeteer to develop a short film that features shadow puppetry, accompanied by a unique soundtrack that blends traditional gamelan music with modern Western musical instruments.

The film teaches Indonesian children how to avoid being infected by intestinal worms and other illnesses caused by eating and drinking unsanitary food or water.

”We had the idea of using Wayang Kulit, or Javanese shadow puppetry, to promote the facilities that we built, and get some health education out into these communities,” Professor Stewart said.

“We developed a new story, based around key characters in the traditional Wayang Kulit repertoire, that pitches the protagonist in a battle against intestinal worms in the body of a small child.

”It is a popular form of entertainment in Indonesia, and the battle scenes and worm puppets help engage the local kids in a culturally relevant way.

“So far the response has been very positive.”


Professor Stewart said the benefits were significant for villages ravaged by parasites such as hookworm.

“We are trying to make sure that these areas aren’t held back by preventable diseases,” he said.

“There are important benefits from improved sanitation and hygiene, for example, worm-free children can flourish physically and can concentrate in school and learn better. This helps break the cycle of poverty.”

Professor Stewart hopes to roll out the program in other developing countries, such as India, Myanmar and the Philippines.

“There is solid evidence that this is an effective way of educating rural communities,” he said.

“Music and health have been linked for aeons, right back to Ancient Greece and China.

“We are continuing that tradition and focusing on combating modern diseases.”